Looking Back on the Nuclear Freeze and Its Impact

by Lawrence S. Wittner

In Oregon, the Nuclear Freeze movement was led by Citizen Action for Lasting Security, one of the organizations that later merged into Oregon PeaceWorks. As we end one year and begin a new one, it is encouraging to look back at historian Lawrence Wittner’s chronicle of that exciting movement. – Editor

Thirty years ago, Randall Forsberg, a young defense and disarmament researcher, launched the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Designed to stop the drift toward nuclear war through a U.S.-Soviet agreement to stop the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons, the freeze campaign escalated into a mass movement that swept across the United States. It attracted the support of nearly all peace groups, as well as that of mainstream religious, professional, and labor organizations.

In addition, the freeze concept secured the backing of most of the general public and was made part of the Democratic Party’s presidential campaign platform. By the early 1990s, despite fierce opposition from the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the freeze campaign, bolstered by the activities of nuclear disarmament groups at home and abroad, had succeeded in securing its objectives and in building a grassroots, long-term disarmament organization in the United States.


As a keen supporter of peace and nuclear disarmament, Forsberg had been giving talks to peace groups since 1975. Convinced that they needed greater unity of action and attainable goals, she suggested in mid-1979 that they coalesce behind two objectives: a nuclear freeze and a nonintervention regime. Both, she believed, would “fundamentally change the nature of government policies.” In December, when addressing the annual meeting of Mobilization for Survival, a major anti-nuclear organization of that era, she scrapped the nonintervention idea and focused instead on the nuclear freeze. Actually, Mobilization for Survival and the major groups backing it—the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC), and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)—were already promoting a U.S. moratorium on nuclear weapons production and deployment. Therefore, as Forsberg recalled, she told the assemblage that if peace activists turned this unilateral moratorium into a bilateral one, “the great majority of the American people would completely agree with you. And you could change the world!”

Forsberg’s speech served as a catalyst for a new movement. Enthusiastic about her idea, peace group leaders urged her to draw up a formal proposal. In late December 1979, Forsberg began drafting the “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.” Circulated widely among leading peace activists, the “Call” emphasized that the freeze would retain the existing nuclear parity between the United States and the Soviet Union, thereby halting the arms race and opening the way for deep reductions in or elimination of nuclear weapons in the future. In April 1980, having secured adequate feedback and individual endorsements, the AFSC, CALC, FOR, and Forsberg’s own Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies published the “Call” and began seeking endorsements from other peace groups. Meanwhile, Forsberg and peace activist George Sommaripa drew up a strategic plan designed to run from 1980 to 1984. The plan proposed that, after securing the support of peace organizations, the movement proceed to obtain the backing of major interest groups, mount a widespread public education campaign to convert Middle America, and, finally, inject the issue into electoral politics.

The Movement Advances

Thereafter, the freeze campaign surged forward. To the dismay of movement leaders, enthusiasts jumped the gun by placing a freeze resolution on the November 1980 election ballot in western Massachusetts. Determined not to lose this first test of strength, Randy Kehler, Frances Crowe, and other local activists swung into action, and the freeze emerged victorious in 59 of the 62 towns that voted on it. In March 1981, the first national conference of the freeze movement convened at the Center for Peace Studies at Georgetown University. Thanks to Forsberg’s efforts to keep the movement respectable, this conclave, although led by pacifists and other longtime critics of military priorities, produced a strategy and movement designed to appeal to the political mainstream. Admittedly, Kehler, chosen as the first freeze coordinator, was hardly an average American, for he had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and a longtime peace activist. Yet, he was also a clean-cut, articulate, consensus-building individual, anxious to keep the movement on a mainstream course. In addition, the organizers deliberately rejected the offers of East Coast peace groups to house the freeze and instead established its headquarters in St. Louis, deep in the country’s heartland.

For the most part, early movement efforts focused on popularizing the idea of the freeze on the local level. Activists distributed vast quantities of literature about the nuclear arms race and brought freeze resolutions before organizations with which they were affiliated, as well as before town meetings, city councils, and state legislatures. They gathered signatures on freeze petitions locally as part of a nationwide campaign and placed freeze referenda on the ballot in cities, counties, and states throughout the country. Although these activities were time consuming and labor intensive, they meshed nicely with the efforts of other groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility, to alert the public to the dangers of nuclear war. In general, freeze activism was stronger in northern and western states than in the more conservative South. Nevertheless, by mid-1982 it had taken root in three-quarters of the nation’s congressional districts.

These efforts helped produce a widespread display of resistance by Americans to the nuclear arms race. In March 1982, 159 out of 180 Vermont town meetings voted to back a nuclear weapons freeze by the U.S. and Soviet governments. On June 12, an anti-nuclear demonstration in New York City around the theme “Freeze the Arms Race—Fund Human Needs” produced the largest political rally up to that point in American life, with nearly a million participants. When the freeze campaign delivered its petitions to the U.S. and Soviet missions to the United Nations, they contained the signatures of more than 2,300,000 Americans. Moreover, that fall, when freeze referenda appeared on the ballot in 10 states, the District of Columbia, and 37 cities and counties around the nation, voters delivered a victory to the freeze campaign in nine of the states and in all but three localities. Covering about one-third of the U.S. electorate, this was the largest referendum on a single issue in U.S. history.

Opinion surveys confirmed the vast popularity of the freeze campaign. Five polls taken during 1983 found an average of 72 percent support for and 20 percent opposition to the freeze—results that were virtually unchanged from six polls taken in 1982. Writing in October 1983, Patrick Caddell, one of the nation’s leading political pollsters, called the freeze campaign “the most significant citizens’ movement of the last century…. In sheer numbers the freeze movement is awesome; there exists no comparable national cause or combination of causes, left or right, that can match…the legions that have been activated.”

Organizational endorsements of the freeze provide yet another indication of the movement’s strength. With the exception of fundamentalist denominations, all major U.S. religious bodies expressed their support for the freeze, including the National Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the United Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Synagogue Council of America. Indeed, hundreds of national organizations—many of which had never before taken a stand on national defense issues—came out in favor of the freeze. They included the American Association of School Administrators, the American Association of University Women, the American Nurses Association, the American Pediatric Society, the American Public Health Association, Friends of the Earth, the National Council of La Raza, the National Education Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the Young Women’s Christian Association. Although the labor movement had been rather hawkish during the Cold War, 25 national labor unions backed the freeze, as did the AFL-CIO. Furthermore, by November 1983, the freeze had been endorsed by more than 370 city councils, 71 county councils, and by one or both houses of 23 state legislatures. In 1984 it became part of the Democratic Party’s presidential campaign platform.

Reagan Administration Reacts

From the standpoint of officials in the Reagan administration, who championed a vast nuclear